PALO ALTO, Calif. — We had brainstormed. We had mind-mapped. We had performed corny skits and written rhyming poems and scrawled our life stories on yards of white paper. We had broken into stakeholder groups and synthesized, prioritized and summarized. Although we sometimes rolled our eyes and grumbled cynical cracks under our breath, we had “honored our differences” and agreed that “all ideas are valid. ”
And now the end was in sight.
Saturday, July 28, was the final day of a remarkable three-day process to reinvent Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, Calif. Some 80 booksellers, community leaders, publishers, authors and customers sat in a large conference room in the Oshman Family JCC, buzzing with new determination — even a touch of anger.
Armed with dozens of strips of paper, masking tape and glue sticks, the participants quickly distilled their previous 14 hours of discussion to eight foundational principles and activities. The new Kepler’s Books must:
1. Be financially sustainable.
2. Have a clearly defined mission.
3. Be dedicated to community outreach.
4. Serve as a gathering place for creative events and social events.
5. Support life-long learning and literary education.
6. Sell books in any form, on any platform.
7. Maintain a virtual presence, with technology fully integrated into the store.
8. Provide a carefully curated selection of books.
Some participants felt inspired by this final list; others complained it didn’t go very deep for all our hard work. “When I look at these ideas,” said Antonia Squire, the children’s buyer at Kepler’s, “they’re wonderful, but I don’t see anything new.”
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised. This hyper-deliberative process — called “Future Search” — isn’t meant to produce a revelatory business plan. It’s meant to make the participants feel personally committed to helping the struggling indie bookstore in the months and years ahead.
Ironically, the only principle the group couldn’t agree on was the only principle that Kepler’s new leader, Praveen Madan, had set down as the foundation of his vision, “The bookstore must be community owned and community operated.” Some participants worried that the store couldn’t thrive if its leadership was dispersed among a large group of people. But Madan insisted that if the community didn’t feel invested in Kepler’s, it would fail again. (The store was forced to close briefly in 2005.)
Besides, Madan pointed out, the community had already expressed its interest in the store: Nearly 700 people recently donated about $750,000 to keep Kepler’s afloat. And members of this conference pledged to raise another $250,000.
Deferring to Madan’s vision, in the final hours the group raced to lay down a number of specific recommendations — from partnering with local businesses to developing temporary satellite stores in empty shopping mall spaces. Several members believed that Kepler’s could exploit the rise of self-publishing by offering editorial services and a print-on-demand Espresso book machine like the one available at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington. Another working group recommended more sophisticated tracking of customers’ interests and buying habits that could be used to produce customized newsletters and maintain a more effectively curated collection of books.
Sean Murray, director of trade sales for Sourcebooks, said, “Kepler’s must begin selling e-books immediately and in a very loud and big way.” He even dared to insist that the store establish affiliate programs with Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com — an act of treason for some people in the room. Many of these publishing and bookstore professionals believe Amazon, the Seattle-based Internet giant, has ruined their business by demanding special pricing deals and by refusing to pay state sales tax.
Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of Politics and Prose, drew rowdy applause when she said, “One of our biggest threats is Amazon’s unfair business practices. We need to be much more effective at communicating to our customers what’s wrong with Amazon. We need to step up and go on the attack.”
Squire was ready to take that fight to the streets. She argued for reviving Kepler’s once edgy political activism to level the playing field for retailers and educate the public about Amazon’s tactics. In the final minutes of the conference, she formed a task force and threw down the gauntlet: “We will provide the publishers with the legal and political and social cover to institute minimum retail pricing.” Can you hear that, Jeff Bezos?
“It may be time to take a breath,” said Sandra Janoff, who had led the participants through these three arduous days of discussion and debate.
Struggling to absorb everything he’d heard, Praveen Madan said, “I almost started to cry when I did my opening remarks, and I feel like crying now. Thank you all for climbing on this crazy bandwagon to save a bookstore.”
Janoff spoke for many of us: “I think I’m a Keplerian now.”
You can read about Day 1 of the conference here.
You can read about Day 2 here.